Monday, November 27, 2006

Voices From The Farm

If you are like me, a fan of the book Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin or know anything about the most successful commune in America, you will enjoy reading "Voices From The Farm". The book is Edited by Rupert Fike, he also makes many contributions in the writing.

The book is a collection of memoirs of Farm residents. It starts of with tales from the beginning when The Farm was only an idea conceived by Stephen Gaskin, a well known teacher in San Fransisco's counterculture during the 60's, and the people who were like minded in their dream of creating a new way of life.

The earliest tales are of the arrival of "The Caravan" in Tennessee. Stephen Gaskin, an English teacher at the San Fransisco State College, was well known for his free Monday Night Classes. Spiritually, Stephen and his pupils seemed to be quite eclectic, though they have always been described as a Christian community. One winter evening in 1969, several ministers from the American Academy of Religion happened upon a Monday Night Class. They were so impressed that arrangements were made for a tour of Stephen and his "sermons" in churches and campuses across the country. The Caravan was the result of his friends and pupils following the tour. Several hundred hippies travelled in buses, trucks and vans across the US. It must have been quite the sight in many a small town and city to see that many San Fransisco hippies in one place at one time!

It is truly a sign of the times that this tour happened the way it did, in my opinion. You have to understand that Stephen's "Monday Night Class" or Sermons if you prefer, were not at all what you might imagine any church service to be. Essentially the people attending services would talk about their experiences of psychedelics from the previous weekend (thus the name Monday Night Service) and try to gather what messages or lessons they were suppose to gain from the experiences. This was the roots of their spiritual community though later on psychedelics were no longer used by the community.

When the tour came to an end and Monday Night Classes resumed in San Francisco, I think there was a sense of loss. They folks of the Caravan had experienced a feeling of community, though nomadic, but a rare type of community. The community was based on honesty and on the idea that problems should be fixed immediately. Bad feelings must be dealt with immediately with truthfulness (and at times it seems rather blunt) so that negativity would not be allowed a space to fester. In the beginning this created a feeling of closeness and love and no one wanted to lose that.

A decision was made to pool all of the communities resources and assets. They would buy land and make that community into a reality - The Farm. Tennessee was chosen for it's inexpensive land, relatively mild winters and laws that would allow them the freedom to form their community. The communities assets would be held in common and redistributed as needed.

Here is where our story really begins.

The stories are interesting, funny, meaningful and sometimes sad. If you are an idealist and dream of living such a lifestyle, it is a reality check. Things are not often easy here. Poverty is a fact of life. You learn that "When Something Belongs to Everybody, It Doesn't Belong to Anybody". Having your friends and neighbors constantly trying to make you confront your issues must have been difficult to take at times!

I was fascinated by the practical details such as getting fresh water, food and shelter to all of the Farm folks and how they managed to make money to pay the bills. I particularly enjoyed reading some examples of the gate house log! Very interesting!

The Farm residents are admirable in their dedication to problem solving, not just within the community but in how they extended it to the world beyond. They stretched out that helpful hand to the world in projects such as Horn of Plenty, providing aid to Guatemala after the Quake of 78. They also provided an ambulance services in New York's Bronx when other ambulance services were afraid to enter the neighborhood. They made a positive impact outside of the community in their offers to take in women with unwanted pregnancies, to provide a safe place for them to bring their children into the world. It was a place were a woman could decide to keep her baby or leave her with a nice loving Farm foster family with the agreement that she could change her mind and come back for the baby any time. The Farm also extended help to the elderly and the mentally ill. The Farm was a community that viewed no one as worthless which so often seems to be the case in the larger world.

I appreciate the honesty in these tales. As you read on, you eventually begin to see the less than ideal events bound to happen in such a community. People tire of living in poverty. Things are not always distributed fairly and equally. Finally in the mid 1980's there were disagreements that could not be resolved and The Farm went through a process that felt like an ugly divorce. Eventually it emerged transformed from a Commune to a Cooperative. Individuals became responsible for their own household finances. During the transformation, many members left causing a collapse of the charitable organization "Horn of Plenty".

Today, many of the members that remain on The Farm are the ones who were there at the start in San Fransisco. There is a strong bond there still. Now their important works are the midwifery practice, the eco school, the book publishing company and their contributions to vegetarian food and cooking. There is still an idealism amongst the residents. They have a positive and vibrant energy. The experiment may not have been completely successful, but they have taught many valuable lessons to the world. It would be a mistake not to take something from their story and incorporate it into your life because it is up to each one of us to make this a good planet. We can learn from The Farm that a new way is possible, we can follow dreams. We CAN make a difference!

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